Being There

Being There is a film based on the Jerzy Kosinski novel of the same name. I’ve not read the book, yet, but I certainly intend to because the film is superb.

Peter Sellers plays Chance, a naive and illiterate gardener who has spent his entire life living and working within the walls of a Washington townhouse. His life is simple — he tends the garden, he watches TV and the maid brings him meals at regular intervals.

This is all overturned when the owner of the house dies, the household is disbanded and Chance is told that he has to leave. So, dressed in his former employer’s impeccable cast-offs, he steps out into the world — which isn’t like TV.

As far as the premise goes, that is pretty much it. Chance knows nothing about the world beyond his garden, but he is able to behave like a talk-show guest and this proves to be enough when he finds himself — following an accident and a couple of misunderstandings — among the Washington elite. Here, his simple and obvious statements about gardening are taken for profound analogies and he quickly becomes the trusted confident of a dying industrialist who, in turn, is an unofficial advisor to the president.

What really makes this film remarkable is that it’s played completely straight, allowing the humour to emerge from the characters and the situations. The only joke is in the premise, yet the film is able to take this premise and repeatedly strike comedy gold. It really is a very funny film.

I had a quick look around after watching the film and there seems to be as many interpretations as to what this film is about as there are reviews. For me, though, Being There is a delightfully gentle satire about the way in which we impose our own prejudices onto others. Chance comes across as something of a blank slate whose agreeableness allows others to interpret his every utterance to mean exactly what they expect, or want, it to mean.